Both Sides

To me, Berlin has always been dualistic. I’m not just talking about the obvious dualism in it’s history, where the city was split into two, separated by a few meters of no man’s land and barbed wire. What I find dualistic is the allure of the city and the reality that I keep bumping into. (Major) European cities tend to have a certain individual charm that attracts millions of visitors, all hunting for that ‘authentic’ experience. Paris makes you want to sit at a bistro and drink wine, eat cheese, and take a stroll along the Seine. Rome is for pizzas and old ruins. Barcelona is the art and Spanish food. Berlin, the capital of Germany, is freedom, beer and techno.

Much of its reputation has to do with history. Already during the Weimar period, like both articles by “Superstructural Berlin” by Nicolas Hausdorf and “Berlin: It’s Not All Sex, All the Time” by Katy Derbyshire point out, Berlin was supposed to fulfill a hedonist’s wildest dreams. It is an image of illegal exclusive night clubs, where one could dance to then controversial jazz music all night long while drinking Sekt in a flapper dress. And although certainly a few have lived that glamorous life, the majority of Berliners were struggling to survive. Yes, it’s art scene was flourishing, and some of Germany’s most famous art was from that time. Those now so adored paintings and literature, were not so appreciated at that time, and are not showing this glamorous image that we long to see. In the classic films with the femme fatales in the 1930’s, it usually doesn’t end well for the female characters, and neither for their male counterparts. In that time there was so much poverty and hunger, that people on the street were literally starving to their deaths. And although the celebrated paintings by Kirchner depict city life, it’s reality is far from glamorous, because after all what is really so glamorous about the many war widows forced into prostitution?

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner – Potsdamer Platz (1914)

Fast forward to the 1980’s. Berlin is divided into two. A thick iron curtain left one side of the city in darkness, which  would slightly be lifted in return for a couple of Deutsche Mark for the curious tourists. The western side of the city has ruined industries, which aren’t profitable anymore since West-Berlin is like a tiny island among communism, and has no good logistical options. This side of the city becomes favourable to the rebels of society, because the youth doesn’t have to perform compulsory army time. Many houses stand empty, and are free for the taking. Once again, the city becomes the home of many ‘free-spirited’ artists, that even attracts international stars like David Bowie and Nick Cave. But, this romantic idea also has a flip side; it is very poor. After the fall of the wall, there is a pull towards cheaper East-Berlin. This is when gentrification and globalization kicks in, and the once swiss cheese-like landscape of Berlin begins to fill up, leaving littler space for the people that made the city so attractive at first. The people that fought for freedom and living space in the 1980’s have now become the property owners or are pushed to the city borders, where they continue to live in poverty. Berlin now still has a repuation for freedom, but I’m not sure that is true anymore. Those spaces of freedom have now been patched up, like the old bullet holes in the apartments in Prenzlauer Berg, of which my parents told me. The city has an allure that attracts many, but the downsides don’t make it in the stories told in the media etc. which are like Hausdorf points out are reponsible for a city’s popularity. Only the stories about Berghain make it out there.

Leave a Reply